South Coast Sri Lanka is primarily a rural religion, made up of somnolent fishing villages and towns, where stilt fisherman can commonly be seen perched above the surf. The province was badly hit by the 2004 tsunami, although little evidence of the destruction remains. Rich in both history and culture, the south boasts attractions ranging from Colonial-era forts to atmospheric religious centers. Visitors can explore the wealth of national parks in the area or even undertake a whale- or turtle- watching expedition.
The south Coast was part of the ancient kingdom of Ruhunu, with Tissamaharama as its capital and principle settlement. The region flourished mainly from trade conducted through the ports in Galle and Matara. The Portuguese arrived in Sri Lanka in the 16th century and constructed a fort in Galle, but they had to capitulate the area to the Dutch East India Company in 1640. When the British took over the country in 1802, Colombo became the main port and the south slipped into relative obscurity. Parts of the region still remain untouched by Sri Lanka’s tourist industry.
However, the province is gradually changing. The southern Expressway from Colombo to Galle has cut the journey to one hour from three. The highway continues on to Matara, and combined with the airport near Hambantota, it is expected to bring many more visitors to the South coast.
The sheltered bay of Unawatuna, offering safe swimming and snorkeling, is a major draw for tourists, whereas surfers keen to escape the crowds can be found at the smaller beachfront settlements of Midigama and Weligama. Tissamaharama acts as a base for trips to the superb national parks nearby, as well as to the venerated town of Kataragama. However, much of the region’s charm lies in simply travelling along the coast to experience local life in the villages. Fishermen and farmers continue to live and work as they have done for generations, even as large hotels spring up nearby.
EXPLORING THE SOUTH
The South Coast encapsulates all of Sri Lanka’s characteristic features. It is home to some of the most beautiful beaches on the island, with snorkeling and diving on offer at Unawatuna and Tangalla. Whale-watching tours are frequently organized out of Mirissa, and Rekawa beach offers some excellent turtle-watching. Wildlife-lovers can spend a rewarding day observing elephants at Uda Walawe National Park or tracking leopards at Yala National Park. Other important sights include the Colonial town of Galle, which boasts an atmospheric 18th- century fort, and Mulgirigala, a Buddhist site where the key to translating the Mahavamsa was discovered. However, Kataragama enjoys pride of place among the South Coast’s diverse attractions. One of the most sacred places on the island, it is where pilgrims descent in droves during the annual Kataragama Festival. more
The best way to get around the South Coast is by car or bus, since distances between towns are often large and trains only run as far east as Matara. Bus services are plentiful along the coast, but having a car and driver makes it easy to stop at sights en route. Most visitors base themselves in Galle or Unawatuna to explore the surrounding area, and then travel on to Mirissa or Tangalla. Tissamaharama makes a good base to visit Bundala and Yala National Parks. Three-wheelers are easily hired for journeys to outlying sights or between coastal settlements.